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I was a little late in my day trip to Leuven, and finally boarded the train at 10:45 in the morning.  I had initially intended to stay for a night or two, but the local youth hostel was closed for January.  I got talking to two locals on the journey, who were very helpful with suggestions for my journey.  The journey was longer than the one to Mechelen, and I fortunately did get out at the right station this time.  I had an added bonus in the the M van Museum was en route from the station to the historical centre, and was a pleasant experience of local art.

However one can have a very enjoyable time merely rambling about the city admiring the architecture, with a Grote Markt and a large church being the standard staple of many such Belgian towns.  That is not to say that these are monotonous features, and neither is the Begijnhof, which is especially magnificent in Leuven.

The bustling Christmas market in the town square was also a pleasant sight, although perhaps my lack of festive fatigue was due to the fact that I had a very quiet Christmas not marked by the standard excess.  The stalls, lights and happy crowds made up somewhat for the dismal weather.  The square might have been empty otherwise, and that may have been rather depressing in January.  I have always thought of the Catholic religion as been sensual, in a nice way, and Catholic Belgium certainly knows how to produce, and enjoy, good food and beer.

Leuven is also home to one of the oldest universities in the world, with the Katholieke Universiteit van Leuven being founded in 1425.  It subsequently became a university of choice for the children of Catholic Irish gentry in its time, but was also the site of a notorious attack by advancing German troops in the First World War.  The library was looted and pillaged before being set ablaze, and the rebuilding and restocking of this took generations.  In this they were very generously helped by various American universities and other institutions.  However the library had to be divided after protests by Flemish students in the sixties over the lack of instruction in their mother tongue.  The original university was to become a Flemish medium institution, while Louvain la Neuve was built near Brussels for the French speaking students.

A statue in the town is dedicated to the famous humanist, Desiderus Erasmus.  Since my exchange programme is dedicated to this particular gentleman, I made sure to seek out the statue and photograph it.  Afterwards I took some time to relax in St Peiters Kerk for a while, to relax after the crowds swarming around the market made me a little claustrophic.

I subsequently strolled down to the Begijnhof, which was once a refuge for widows and spinsters but is now a student residence.  The gorgeous buildings and quiet atmosphere made me rather envious of the students lucky enough to be living here, which is probably how Dutch students feel about my dorm on Prinsengracht.   At the heart of this lovely oasis of calm is the St Jan de Doperkerk, or Church of St John the Baptist, which is also a rather impressive structure.

Even though the weather was chilly and rather drizzly, I decided to stay in town for a while longer.  I discovered a cosy student bar which contained a stunning tapestry, and a hot chocolate soon warmed me up on a cold afternoon.  I had decided to visit the Domus restaurant for dinner, and try their locally produced beer.  The spaghetti I had was quite adequate, and their beer is rather good.  It also had the advantage of a catchy name – Nostra Domus, which is easy enough to remember.

The train journey back to Antwerp was long, but quiet and uneventful after such a long day.  I decided to visit a small town called Lier the following day, rather than just have a lazy Sunday around Antwerp.  This is a town on the Antwerp – Leuven railway line, and is thoroughly charming.  It had all the usual sights which I had come to know and love about Flemish towns; the church tower, the town square surround by restaurants and the Groot Begijnhof.  The latter is impressive, even compared to the wonderful Begijnhof at Leuven, while Lier does have one particularly unique feature.  This is the Zimmertoren, a clock tower featuring a particularly colourful and ornate timepiece.  The features include a globe in which the Congo is still a Belgian colony, making this a clock trapped in time.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Belgium, and made sure to do some window shopping in Antwerp’s fashion district before catching my train to Luxembourg.  The area contains numerous well known brands, but also some quirky local start ups and homegrown talent.  One should not forget that the city also contains its fair share of Belgian chocolate outlets, and chocoholics should avail of every opportunity to treat themselves.  I heartily recommend a visit to this small country with a big heart.





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